WESTBROOK, Maine — Kelly Main saw a chance to sell the cramped Old Orchard Beach condominium she owned for 11 years and use the money she expected to get from Maine’s thriving real estate market toward larger digs near Portland.
Finding a new home that fit her under-$300,000 budget took patience. Gorham and Scarborough were too pricey, and she lost several bids in other locations. About a month ago she bought a townhouse in Westbrook, a city she said has plenty to offer with breweries, a bowling alley, small downtown shops, eateries and live music venues.
“I feel like it’s up and coming and it’s not too far from Portland,” said Main, an accountant, “and it has a community feeling to it.”
Portland’s hot housing market has spilled over into its surrounding towns including Westbrook, Gorham and Scarborough, which each have seen their population grow a higher percentage than Portland’s over the past decade. Suburban home prices are escalating as well, but Westbrook remains the biggest bargain in the Portland area. It has the densest population of those suburbs and is the only one with a major urban center.
“We’ve seen a significant growth in the number of new housing units over the past decade,” Jerre Bryant, the city administrator for the past 19 years, said, “and it is a community where you can buy more house for the money.”
Known decades ago as a mill town that commuters drove through, the city has increasingly gained a reputation as a good place to live, with its population rising more than 16 percent over the past 10 years to 20,400, one of the fastest growth rates in the area and compared with just a 3 percent rise in Portland, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The median sales price of a single-family home in Westbrook hit $405,000 in August, up significantly from $315,750 in August 2020. But that is more affordable compared with $479,200 in Portland, $426,750 in Gorham and $595,000 in Scarborough, according to data from the Maine Association of Realtors. Homes across all of those municipalities were on the market for less than one week on average.
New homes are also being built. The city granted 329 new residential construction permits from 2015 to 2020, many for single-family homes. This year, the city’s planning board approved a 26-unit condo project near the Gorham line and 22 housing units on the former Twin Falls Golf Course. The city government also is working with the Westbrook Housing Authority to create more affordable housing units. Some 16 percent of Westbrook residents live in poverty, just a little more than Portland’s almost 15 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Condos also are in high demand. Rachel Davey, associate broker at Vitalius Real Estate Group, sold an eight-unit development within 90 days to different owners occupying the units. Prices ranged from $265,000 to $275,000, which Davey called a price point “not seen in Westbrook.”
The city is now home to technology companies like animal health giant IDEXX Laboratories, which is its largest employer. Local government has focused in recent years on reviving the downtown and adding the Rock Row multi-use development in 2019 that includes a Market Basket supermarket, several restaurants and retailers, a cancer center and a large concert venue that is being transitioned from an outdoor to indoor venue. Rock Row was developed on the site of an abandoned quarry.
“I wish I had a nickel for every time someone told me nothing could ever happen there,” former Mayor Colleen Hilton, who is the president of Northern Light Home Care & Hospice, said.
Westbrook is shaking its reputation as home to older industries and transitioning into what Bryant called a new economy. The Sappi mill has shifted its emphasis over the past 30 years from making paper for publishing, which is a declining market, to creating specialty release paper for textured surfaces used in fashion, automobiles and doctors’ offices. Employment now is less than 10 percent of its peak of 3,000 in the 1950s.
The city was later to the real estate boom than other towns, Rick Yost, an agent with NextHome Northeast Realty in Windham, said. It has always been the most commutable town to Portland, but because of the blue-collar stigma and some beat-up housing stock downtown, it didn’t grow, he said.
“Now it’s a really hot market,” he said. “Every community is trying to be the next ‘coolest’ community, but I think Westbrook is actually succeeding.”
Mixing long-time residents with newcomers, it’s also one of the most diverse cities in the state for attracting new Americans, following Portland and Lewiston. The city has one of the most racially diverse public school systems in the state, with 27 percent of its almost 2,500 students being minorities, according to Public School Review. Of those, 14 percent are Black, 4 percent Hispanic and another 4 percent one or more races.
“It is a diverse community, a small city but without big city problems,” Hilton said. “There are great neighborhoods and people are respectful of your space.”
The influx of new residents has not yet increased Westbrook’s school population, but the city recently completed extensive expansion and renovation projects at the middle school and one elementary school that helps prepare for growth, said Bryant, the city manager.
It is upgrading its wastewater management and treatment plant capacities and working with a regional land trust to preserve open space throughout the city. The increasing traffic volume from its own growth and that in neighboring communities is Westbrook’s biggest challenge, Bryant said. It is part of a regional transit system that recently expanded routes in the city.
Danni Higgins, a speech pathologist who lives in Portland, likes the energy around planning that she’s experienced when talking to local officials. She and her husband invested in a three-unit apartment building in Westbrook that they plan to rent out.
“I think there is a strong community that’s developing and there are businesses to meet the needs of those who live there,” she said. “I’m excited to be part of that.”